The Government’s initiative to run an educational programme to help eradicate caste based prejudice in the UK is highly welcomed. The programme will generate educational material for schools, employers, local authorities, police and other institutions where caste related issues can arise. The Government has taken the right approach to educate what seems to be a small minority of Hindus and Sikhs who still hold onto this cruel form of discrimination against their fellow brothers and sisters.
Whilst the problem is not endemic in British Hindu and Sikh society the case studies listed in the report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, NIESR, make for an uncomfortable reading. The report is attached below.
There are 30 case studies mainly among the Panjabi Hindu and Sikhs from the Midlands and Southall areas. In fact majority of the cases are between Jatt Sikhs (the Panjabi farmer Caste) and the Ravidassia and Valmiki communities, though there are some cases from the other Caste Hindus also.
Further it seems that a minority of people who come from rural Punjab seem to hold onto those old Caste hierarchical ideas and they then try to indoctrinate their children here the same conceptions. Nonetheless it was refreshing to see in one case study (No.20) a Valmiki was voted to be the Chair of the social club in the company he worked for by the ‘younger Jatts’ in spite of the efforts of older Jatts’ canvassing against him. This shows that the second and third generations no longer ‘think’ as the first generation Caste Indians did, some of whom clearly still do.
However there are a few case studies where the children suffer bullying and taunting at school and this sort of behaviour is beyond cruelty. Again those particular studies point to the fact that some older generation Jatt Sikhs from rural Punjab are teaching their children of the Caste system at it prevailed in their villages, perhaps when they left India.
Some cases are inconclusive on whether there was genuine caste discrimination or not but to taunt someone or tell ill-founded jokes of his Caste or Religion cannot be tolerated in a society which works hard to give us all its fair share of equality and justice.
Mahatma Gandhi called the Dalits, Harijans, children of God. Rig Veda states that the Creator Brahma created Varnashram – the four vocations for a healthy society – by dividing his own body into four parts: Brahmin, Education work from his head, Kshatriya, Defence work from his Arms, Vaishya, Agriculture and Trade from his middle body, and Shudra, Labour work from his legs. Rig Veda qualifies this division by adding that this vocation – varna – represents one Purusha, Person, and that as one Purusha there is no one of higher status or of lower status and it also goes onto elaborate that there is no one of middle status either. Rig Veda asserts that Purusha is complete only as one whole, if divided it is no longer Purusha, in which case society will disintegrate. Thus the Varna or vocation was packaged into the august wrapper of Ashram, which is the physical abode of our Rishis. Hence the ancient vocational led education system in the Guru-Kul’s or Schools was established as Varnashram.
Sanskrit to English
Definitions: Varna = Vocation Purusha = Person
Although Vedic injunction was to treat the four Varna’s as of equal status in one complete Purusha, the hierarchy of status developed according to the spirituality inherent in each vocation. Atma-Vidya, metaphysics was considered to be the highest in rank. Money or power were considered transitory and so were not considered as important as the knowledge of the Self.
Later Lord Krishna teaches in the Bhagwad Gita that Varnashram is based on the ‘nature’ of a person endowed according to the three guna or the three qualities inherent in Prakriti or Mother Nature. Krishna’s further reference to Dwija, the ‘Twice Born’ refers to the second birth of a young person when he matches his/her skills into the right Varna or vocation, or basically when he or she starts ‘working’, karma.
In Chapter 18 Stanzas 41 to 48 Lord Krishna declares the four fold Varnashram to be defined by one’s Karma, which here means one’s work. The word Karma appears in each of the verses from 41 to 48 but never the word Janam, or Birth. If Varna was to be based on Birth then Krishna would have used the word Janam instead of Karma in those stanzas.
However, sadly this Karma based Varnashram has been corrupted to become the fixed Jati, Caste system based on Janam, probably by the advent of the Manu-Samriti, the Hindu Law Book of Kings. Although the inception of the Manu-Samriti is accorded to be as ancient as the Vedas, with the first king Manu, I believe it was a Hindu law book that constantly got revised by every new dynasty that ruled India. Each king would have made his own laws, and revised the Manu Samriti. It was a ‘live’ law statute. In the case of Varnashram the passing of a skill or a vocation from father to son became the norm and Varna became the fixed Jati system.
With Varnashram the hierarchy was only associated to the type of work one chose, and there are scriptural examples of people rising from labour work to becoming warrior or a priest teacher Guru but once the Jati became fixed in a family doing the same vocation the hierarchy became fixed to people’s birth.
The tradition does still allow for Jati to be allowed to change if one chooses a different vocation but only if the family continues the new vocation for three generations, thereafter the Jati changes to match the new vocation. This is neither applicable nor desirable nowadays. Who would care for such a change? Nobody!
Only the worst part of the Caste system is the ‘untouchables’. How could one group of people treat another as untouchable?
This vile ‘untouchable’ Caste discrimination according to some scholars, (Recent Indologist Professor Arthur Basham’s Indian History and Culture) developed probably in the last millennium. Certainly the earlier 1st Millennium BCE Greek and 1st Millennium CE Chinese Historians (Fa Xian 5th Century CE) do not mention such behavioural patterns in their historical accounts of India’s people. The untouchable development in Caste seems to have taken root largely in the 2nd Millennium CE. The only consolation I can draw from this vile behavioural pattern is for it being a more recent development, in the context of the antiquity of the Hindu civilisation, that if we work on it in the right targeted way we can see its demise in an equally short span of time.
The Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance, ACDA, originally started by an evangelical Christian based organisation and their associate Dalit Solidarity Network, DSN, have been long lobbying for legislation against Caste discrimination in the UK. In the last decade one of their Ministers Rev. David Haslam used to preach against Caste but also Hinduism. He openly used to say that the real problem is with Hinduism. The Hindu Human Rights Group in UK had a tough time with him in the last decade. The DSN used to send their activists to the Ravidassia and Valmiki temples trying to make them aware of the discrimination. In 2008 the President of the Southall Valmiki temple asked one of their activists to leave the temple since she was trying to divide, in his words, ‘our – larger Hindu – community’. The Ravidassia community in Southall also then sent away a Ravidassia converted Christian chap who was lobbying for the UN to issue Hindu Caste discrimination reports.
However the ACDA continued their campaign and it acquired affiliation from all the Ravidassia and Valmiki temples gradually. Now it has become a major lobbying force. It also estimates that here are 400,000 Dalits in the UK. If categorised separately as Dalits in the next Census, which maybe their next campaign to pursue if the Caste legislation is enacted, then actually the number of Hindus and Sikhs will diminish equally but more importantly the label Dalit will take more of a permanent shape, something I am personally uncomfortable with.
The evidence shown in the NIESR report is confined to a very small discriminatory minority and the Government Equalities Minister Helen Grant MP is, in my view, quite right to deal with this issue in an appropriate and ‘targeted’ manner. The problem is confined to discrimination against Dalits evidently from a tiny ‘rural’ minority of Indians from Punjab. Yet with Caste it would cover a whole set of other communities who play no part in such a horrible and cruel way of living. In the UK we have Hindus from all over the world far removed by generations from the rural Punjab in question.
The ACDA calls it the hidden ‘apartheid’. This is an unfair charge on the British Hindus and Sikhs. We recognised in 2008 when HCUK issued a report on Caste that ACDA and DSN had a conversion agenda in India behind their campaign here, particularly as this charge of apartheid can be hardly justified in the UK.
House of Lords Debate earlier this month approved to legislate against Caste discrimination in the Enterprise and Regulatory Frame Bill, link to Hansard Report given below. The amendment was tabled by the Rt. Reverend Lord Harries who as a faith person would naturally be compassionate to those who are wronged but when he says that by focusing on the education approach may ‘blur’ the distinction, thus will confuse the recourse available to an otherwise distinct social group under legislation, will be detrimental to protecting Dalits; that view I fail to understand. We have seen among the Caribbean Hindus, Malaysian Hindus, Mauritian Hindus that it is precisely the ‘blurring’ of Caste distinctions that led to their discriminatory-free societies.
We have seen in countries like India and Nepal that legislation has not really worked. In fact it is the NGO’s, Charity organisations, who help empower the Dalits. The legislation entrenches the labels further. To my mind it is better if through education, Caste differences get ‘blurred’ as opposed to accentuated more. Certainly our youngsters increasingly are less concerned with Caste.
I thank my friend and colleague Lord Singh of Wimbledon to come to the defence of the Hindu faith when Baroness Flather tried to link the Caste discrimination to Varna by defining Varna as Colour and that the lighter skinned Aryans divided the people according to their colour, which is absolutely not true nor accurate and is taken straight from the ‘Macaulayite’ school of Colonial Indology. There was an even reminder of Wilberforce who sent missionaries to India to convert the heathens, though the Debate alleges it was all on the behest of eradicating the Caste system. True, Wilberforce did help eradicate slavery in Britain, which we respect him for, but his later adventure to set up the first Bishopric of Calcutta was hardly to eradicate the Caste system; it was rather to convert the heathens – and as a proof it led to the 1857 war of Independence or Mutiny, depending on which way you look at it.
Further the debate adds that if we cannot legislate here what sort of message would we, the British Parliament, be sending to the 200 million Dalits in India. Clearly we were right in our assessment of ACDA and DSN in 2008 that their campaign was more about India and not for cohesion in the UK. Anyway as for the UK they have already been successful in setting divisions in our society by their relentless campaign.
The Debate observes the similarity of Caste to Race and to Ethnicity and then goes onto explore Descent. I think if a law was required it would be better not to confuse Caste with Race or Ethnicity and nor with Descent. There will be an endless number of Races or Sub-Races under the Jati Descent. The Sikhs are already considered a Race under Descent as are the Jews, which served them protection under the Race Relations Act. But in case of Jati’s whilst the Sikh religion rejects the Caste system the reality is that the Jati’s continue to stick “culturally” among the Sikhs. Furthermore to some Hindus and Sikhs the additional identity of their lineage or Descent is also important. For instance in addition to their family Surname they have Gotra which signifies their Lineage-Descent, and further some families have held onto their origins from the Vedic times, and that lineage they remember by their Rishi-Gotra.
Moreover the Race legislation was primarily to protect the immigrant minorities from the larger host Majority in the UK but the Caste discrimination is about a problem ‘within’ the Indian minorities. In the former case legislation had the effect of uniting the minorities but in the latter the legislation may have the effect of splitting them.
The Hindu Lords who remained silent should be accorded some respect for their silence as I am sure we do all recognise that Caste discrimination as shown by some of the case studies in the NIESR Report is a nasty problem in tiny pockets of our society; help us educate those ‘rogue’ people first, please.
Anil Bhanot OBE
Hindu Council UK
The Lords Debate to vote for Caste legislation 04 March 2013:
A Response to House of Lords Proposal for Caste Legislation 11 January 2010: